Second in a two-part series covering both New Relationship Energy and Established Relationship Energy, this blog will focus on the latter.
Established Relationship Energy, or ERE, is the comfortable and secure feeling associated with a longer term relationship that has perhaps weathered a couple storms, been down the pet-peeve discovery path, and still landed firmly on its feet. Some literature has referred to this as ORE, or Old Relationship Energy, but the negative connotations there are a bit steep when it’s held up against NRE (the New Relationship Energy I wrote about last week).
I’m a huge fan of ERE! There is a lot to be said for being able to relax in a relationship without obsessive thinking and brain chemical nonsense impairing one’s ability to resist impulses and make important decisions. You know, when it’s just easy to be around someone and even an afternoon of sitting on the couch in your comfy clothes with your feet on one another is a thing to look forward to and enjoy. There’s no pressure to perform or impress; nothing telling you to sell a version of yourself that doesn’t exist. Just a safe place to be yourself and know you’re loved exactly the way you are.
The thing is, sometimes when we settle into the ease of ERE, we also fall into a pattern of taking our partners for granted. Maybe long ago they developed a habit of always making sure ripe bananas were available for your morning smoothie. In the beginning that made you feel loved and important! Over the years, however, it became a thing you expected from them . . . now if they aren’t available you experience negative feelings. We have a habit of transitioning from gratitude to entitlement over time, and that doesn’t serve anyone very well.
This is especially problematic in non-monogamous situations where one’s ERE stands in stark contrast to NRE. If your ERE is really Entitled Relationship Energy, your NRE is going to suck for your established partner(s). But do not give up hope! You can get back to gratitude with a few easy steps.
Make a list
I do love a good list . . . and on my phone, in a handy little shared app called Google Keep, I have a list of all the ways I share love with my partner in my longest term relationship. Things like “you make me coffee in the morning even though you don’t drink it” and “you reach for my hand when we’re out walking together.” On my partner’s end, they feel loved when I pack their lunches on nights they stay over and trim their beard to keep them looking their most adorablest. These are small, simple things that we’ve done for years and will hopefully continue to. We run the risk of coming to expect these things instead of being thankful for them, but having a list to refer to helps us remember to be intentional with our gratitude.
Nourish Your ERE
Each type of energy is valuable for its own reasons. Attempting to “rekindle” NRE will fall flat more often than not, because it’s inauthentic. This isn’t about trying to replicate NRE in an established relationship. Instead of trying to re-experience a long past, temporary state of endocrine intoxication, focus on feeding the aspects of your established relationship that bring you the most joy. DO THINGS together, and not just chores. Explore your world, invest in your future, make plans and share dreams. You are with this person because they’re amazing, not because they take up available space.
Oh please, if you are with someone because they take up available space, run, do not walk to them, and release them from the burden of being partnered with you.
One of my partners and I embarked on a long-term project late last year. So far it’s been a huge bonding experience! We share thoughts and ideas and excitement about a thing we’re investing a ton of time and energy into. I’m learning so much from them, and I hope they’re learning just as much from me. We are discovering new strengths and in a very real way, we are growing together as individuals. This shared investment enhances our feeling of security and connection to one another, and after several years together, we feel safe reasonably expecting it to not all be for naught in a year’s time.
Be Mindful of Your Finite Resources
No matter how you spin ERE, it will never look as exciting as NRE when they are held up to the light – because the unknown is laden with possibilities. When you’re experiencing NRE with someone, you may feel compelled to spend all your “fun” energy on them. If you make the mistake of using all of your energy to grow a new relationship at the expense of your established one(s), you may find them irreparably harmed when you come to your senses.
If you choose to take your emotional foundations for granted, they will crumble under their own weight without you there to hold up your end. New partners are not vacations from established ones, so do what you can to ensure that’s not how you’re showing up. No one needs to be more important than anyone else, but no one enjoys feeling less important either. Established relationships deserve date nights out, splurges, surprises, impulsive kisses, and expressions of love and excitement, too.
I can tell you from personal experience that it’s a lot easier to be supportive of new connections your partner makes if those connections don’t mean you’re suddenly a 30-minute, low-fat, weeknight, chicken breast recipe from Family Circle circa 1987, expected to cheer on your partner’s newfound subscription to the catered, five-course, wine-paired, candle-lit, chef’s menu of the month club every Friday and Saturday night. Cuz, uh . . . that’s a hard pill to swallow.
Resist the Urge to Protect your relationship from NRE
I won’t go too much into this, but I will say that making rules and agreements that limit your established partners in the pursuit of new connections just so you can feel secure just ensures future resentments. Trust me on this. Let the goats eat the garbage – all of it – and it will be okay.
And on the flip side!
It can be super intimidating to be the new person partnering with someone whose other relationship(s) span years or even decades. Here this wonderful person you’re falling for has perhaps built an entire life with someone else, or maybe multiple people! They have investments (financial, emotional, etc.) and history. Inside jokes, mutual friends, in-laws (or similar), and have been through tough times and lived to tell the tale.
You, on the other hand, might be the flavor of the week, yeah? I mean, you’re not . . . you are just as valuable as anyone else anyone is partnered with, but it will do you no good to pine for ERE when you’re just getting to know someone.
When I first met my longest term partner, they’d been with their spouse for sixteen years already. Literally since just after high school; never adults in this world without the other by their side. Their ERE was intimidating to say the least. All their friends were mutual, as were recreational activities, the living space, family, all holidays, traditions, property, bank accounts, and even a girlfriend. I was so terrified in the beginning because there didn’t appear to be room for me in their life. At first, I agreed to things I felt bad about rather than risk advocating for myself and losing my seemingly tenuous hold on a budding relationship. I felt very sure that whatever NRE we shared was still not worth what they had banked in ERE with their spouse, and I didn’t see any path to establishing anything close to that with them, ever.
And that’s what comparisons get you . . . the Crystal Ball of Doom™.
With that experience behind me, I’ve found it far less anxiety inducing to let relationships unfold as they’re supposed to. I suffered through my NRE instead of enjoying it because it felt like I could lose the connection at any moment. My insecurity informed a lot of decisions I now regret. These days, I see ERE as a potential outcome and NRE as a phase to enjoy regardless of the outcome. I have connections that fall into a number of categories of depth and energy, but I don’t feel anxious about the shape of any of them.
I’ve also mistakenly tried to force ERE into a new relationship so it would like what I already had with someone else. I regret that as well, because when the NRE wore off in that partnership, the shape of what we’d created didn’t fit the relationship we actually had. Have you ever worn a shirt that was too small across the chest but also too long in the torso? It doesn’t feel good, and you don’t want to be in it for longer than you have to. That’s how I ruined that relationship.
I try to make these mistakes so no one else has to! Unless you’re a kinetic learner like me and need to make them all yourself. That’s okay. I promise to hold your hand when the fog clears and you need a shoulder to cry on; I’m grateful for the ones who held mine, and lent me theirs.
Until next time, have a happy poly (or whatever you call it), and don’t forget to feel just as loved as the years go by when those ripe bananas are there for your morning smoothie more often than not. It means somebody loves you very, very much. The same way you love them.
Image credit: Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times